So Long and Thanks for All the History: Keywords Follow-Up

by Theresa Horstman & Edmond Chang

We are happy to announce another successful Keywords for Video Game Studies session!  Thanks to all who joined us on Thursday, November 8 to discuss all things video games and “HISTORY.”

We considered the important questions of “which history?” and “what history?” and even “whose history?”  This included the history of games as a medium, genres, engines, worlds, and hardware such as consoles.  In a sense, the conversation pointed up a very different way of looking at gaming that raised many more questions, overlaps, and boxes-within-boxes than it did to resolve them (which is a good thing as per Ian Bogost’s argument that “videogames are a mess”).  In a deep sense, thinking about history and concomitant terms like materiality, archive, conservation, and memory allowed for a purposeful (albeit messy) “approach to thinking the existence of games” to reference Bogost again.   Or, in a different vein, how might video games provide a unique methodological challenge and opportunity to historians, as per Carl Therrien’s concerns in “Video Games Caught Up in History.”  He argues, “The commodity of the computer age, with its data storage, organization and transcoding abilities, promises to solve accessibility problems.  Yet in spite of these resources, and to a certain extent because of them, the challenges in bringing the young, new medium to history books are considerable” (10).

The session’s conversation turned to the different domains or layers of video games as history, video game history, and video games and history.  We dove into considerations of game mechanics and the evolution of game development by adopting and incorporating attributes from previous games, particularly game franchises, game reboots, and the recent trend in recreating (without irony) games of yore, games of nostalgia, porting them without change from a previous platform to a contemporary one.  We mulled over the recent focus on platform studies, code studies, and of the history of video game markets.  In connection to the quarter’s first Keywords session on “VIOLENCE,” we chewed over the privileging of war, combat, conflict, and killing in games about history (from Oregon Trail to Civilization to Assassin’s Creed) and the history of public, mainstream conversations about games.   And we considered the ways that games might import historical events, details, and commentary in obvious and inobvious ways.

In considering games containing historical content  we discussed the contradictions arising from portrayals of fixed histories.  For example, in Civilization the assumed perspective built into game play is one to conquer all others and to develop technology along a very fixed path.  In this sense, the history as it is being developed and played is already known.  In a game like Assassins Creed III we discussed merging history with fiction and the remediation of history when games themselves are modified and rewritten.  Like other medium, historical content within, about and of video games provide an interesting opportunity to reflect on how history is positioned.  In addition, through playing history we’re afforded an opportunity to reflect on its accuracy and meaning.

We then moved to thinking about nondiegetic and paratextual contexts like game libraries, virtual world conservation, player communities, and fandom.  For example, we considered the history of a single player within a single game space and the unique perspective and experience that is carried through to other game spaces.  This led to considerations on shared player history and the creation of a culture of play across individuals.  Moreover, we raised Anna Anthropy’s engagement with video game communities—as indicated by the title of her book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form—that perhaps point up and complicate the history of gaming as being “dominated by a small part of the population: generally white male engineers” (23) and how to imagine a future where everyone can make games “rather than by corporations for consumers or by technical wizards for stunned onlookers” (42).

As our conversation came to a close (though not an easy finish), it was clear there is a broad range of the type of history associated with video games and required a concerted effort to “address the evolution and interactions of three circuits: technology, industry, and culture” (Therrien 21).  That’s all, of course.  But this messy work is worth the while.  We hope all those who attended enjoyed our discussion.  Please continue to read, play and comment on the keywords as we move into 2013; next quarter’s sessions are on “FANTASY” and “BODIES/SEX.”  Enjoy the holidays, winter break, and take some time to play!

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One Response to So Long and Thanks for All the History: Keywords Follow-Up

  1. Jassine Chow says:

    It was interesting how history in video games seemed to go hand-in-hand with violence in video games. Also mentioned in discussion was that Final Fantasy VII seemed to reflect that, when it came out, Japan had been growing more and more concerned about pollution, which is a connection I hadn’t noticed before. Prior to this session, it never occurred to me that video games are influenced by the time period in which they are created, much like how books are affected by the time period in which they are written. Another thing I hadn’t considered that was mentioned is how video games tend to not be valued as much as books because the technology is constantly changing in a way that many games will not be accessible after a decade or so.

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